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Now that Xi Jinping has taken control of China's military, armed police and Coast Guard, the question is: What approach will his regime take in international relations?   © Xinhua/AP
China up close

Analysis: Xi takes over Coast Guard and gives it a license to fire

President's consolidation of power at home will be felt in the East China Sea

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO -- China's new Coast Guard Law allowing the patrol force to fire at foreign ships in its waters represents a political victory for President Xi Jinping and turns these vessels into the equivalent of a second navy.

The law, which went into force on Monday, also allows Coast Guard vessels to forcibly remove buildings constructed by foreign countries on Chinese islands. Considering China's disputatious manner in the East and South China seas, this is an intimidating piece of legislation.

Since 2018, the Coast Guard, which the Pentagon calls "by far the largest coast guard force in the world," has been under the command of the Central Military Commission, the supreme military policymaking body, which Xi leads. Previously it was under the civilian control of the State Oceanic Administration.

With new ships that weigh in at 10,000 tons, carry 76 mm cannons and can accommodate helicopter landings, the Coast Guard is more than ready to assist the navy in the event of a military contingency.

One researcher notes that the law finally puts Xi in a position to directly control the People's Liberation Army, the People's Armed Police and Coast Guard. "This was only possible after Xi won a series of power struggles," the expert on Chinese politics and government said. "The process is complete at long last."

Looking back at Xi's power struggles, one figure emerges as key -- Meng Hongwei, who was the first Chinese to become president of Lyon-headquartered Interpol.

Meng Hongwei's disappearance in October 2018 while on a short visit to China shocked the world.   © Xinhua/AP

Meng went missing In October 2018 while on a short visit to China. He was eventually sentenced to 13 years and six months in jail for corruption and other crimes.

What is not widely known is that Meng was the head of the China Coast Guard when it was inaugurated as a government organization in 2013. He continued to concurrently serve as vice public security minister.

In 2016, while retaining his status as Coast Guard director, Meng went to France to lead Interpol. But in December 2017, he was relieved of his duties as the head of the Coast Guard.

It is important to note the timing.

Around this time, the military and the armed police were in turmoil.

Two generals who served on the Central Military Commission -- Fang Fenghui, a former chief of the Joint Staff Department, and Zhang Yang, a former head of the Political Work Department -- were purged. Zhang later took his own life.

Following the leadership reshuffle at the PLA, Xi was intent on taking full control of the People's Armed Police and the Coast Guard as well to cement his grip on power.

As the political drama was playing out, the national constitution was revised to scrap the limit of two five-year terms placed on Chinese presidents.

Things accelerated in 2018. As the year began, Xi himself conferred a new flag on the People's Armed Police in a ceremony held at the Bayidalou in Beijing, which houses the Central Military Commission headquarters.

The People's Armed Police was placed under the full command of Xi's military commission. It had previously been under the joint jurisdiction of the military commission and State Council.

The need to control all three units of the military apparatus stems from events that took place in 2012 and 2013.

According to leaks by insiders, a group of four tried to block the accession of Xi to top leader, in what has been described as equivalent to a coup.

Dubbed the "New Gang of Four," the alleged conspirators were Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, who controlled the armed police; Chongqing's top official and Xi rival Bo Xilai; top-level military officer Xu Caihou; and Ling Jihua, director of the party's General Office and the right-hand man of Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor.

"The New Gang of Four" -- Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Xu Caihou and Ling Jihua. (Source photos by Reuters) 

Under the previous Hu regime, the then-nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's decision-making body, literally ran the country "by committee," each leader managing his area of jurisdiction.

Zhou was No. 9 in terms of party ranking, but as secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, he had full control of the police, the armed police, courts, prosecution agencies and intelligence organs.

That concentration of power in one individual separate from the top leader made the threat of a coup all the more realistic.

Meng, the future Interpol chief, was rising through the ranks under the protection of Zhou, on his way to become leader of the Coast Guard.

But Meng's fortunes took a turn for the worse after Zhou was purged in Xi's signature anti-corruption campaign and the Coast Guard was placed under the command of the CMC.

Recent personnel appointments show that the Coast Guard is now fully controlled by the military. Not only was Meng removed from the head of the Coast Guard, but he was also detained.

His replacement at the Coast Guard, Major Gen. Wang Zhongcai, previously served as deputy chief of staff of the East Sea Fleet.

Xi Jinping attends a ceremony where a police flag is conferred on China's police force at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, on Aug. 26, 2020.   © Xinhua/AP

In retrospect, the ultimate purpose of the anti-corruption campaign that took down the New Gang of Four, as well as other foes of Xi's, might have been to pave the way for bold organizational reforms that would allow Xi to gain control of the military and other powerful organizations.

Reforms on their own would have faced resistance from organizations with vested interests. Xi needed to remove key figures who could form the core of any resistance.

Now that Xi has taken control of the military, the armed police and the Coast Guard, the question is: What approach will his regime take in international relations?

The new Coast Guard Law could be put into practice in the East China Sea. The Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands. By repeatedly send vessels into the waters around the islands, including inside the 12-nautical miles from the islands' shores, China is attempting to demonstrate to the world that Japan's administrative control has crumbled.

Wang Yi asserts Chinese sovereignty over Japan-administered islands during a news conference with Toshimitsu Motegi, in Tokyo on Nov. 24, 2020.   © Reuters

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Japan in November, he made some controversial comments about the islands that, in retrospect, were a prelude to the Coast Guard Law.

At a joint news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Wang repeatedly painted the tensions around the Senkakus as being the fault of Japanese boats coming too close to the shores.

"The fact is that recently some Japanese fishing boats of unknown origin have repeatedly entered the sensitive waters off the Diaoyu Islands, and China has to make a necessary response," Wang said.

"China's position is clear," Wang said. "The Chinese side will continue to firmly safeguard its sovereignty."

He proposed that the two sides should avoid taking actions in sensitive waters that may complicate the situation and that the two sides should communicate in a timely manner if problems occurred.

The harmless-looking proposal was a curveball. If Japan were to comply, it would give the impression to the international community that the islands were jointly managed by the two countries.

One thing is clear. Wang's argument two months ago and the China Coast Guard law's taking effect Monday show that China's attempt to alter the status quo by force is real and will only get stronger.

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